Building the Bildungsroman

In a sense, every novel is a “coming-of-age” novel: a hero or heroine emerges from youth, or humble beginnings, or sheltered wealth to glimpse a new world of frightening possibilities. The journey that follows always changes the protagonist, introducing him or her to people on different stages of their own journeys, some already beaten-down, warning the protagonist to turn back while he/she still has a chance. Others point the way forward, offering time-honored wisdom which bears fruit in subsequent chapters, and might eventually save the character’s life. We love to watch fictional characters grow up, since they can test the waters and make mistakes (in fact, conflict consists of repeated mistakes). And when they succeed, we can imagine ourselves reaping the benefits—we just have to follow in their wake. They make it look so easy, after all! 

These kind of novels are so ubiquitous that they have a name: “bildungsroman,” or the novel of education/character. The 18th century gave us a dozen variations on this theme, most notably the scandalous 1759 novel by Voltaire, Candide. In this short book, Candide lives as a servant in the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh, under the tutelage of the philosopher Pangloss, who preaches a philosophy borrowed from Alexander Pope’s “whatever is, is right.” In his world, everything happens for a reason, and for the best possible reason...until Candide is thrown out of the castle, his beloved, Cunegonde, is raped and killed (well, not completely—it’s a comedy, after all), his teacher is tortured and contracts syphilis, and they both witness the utter destruction of Lisbon by an earthquake.

Having seen too much of man and his crimes, Candide laments to his companion, Cacambo: “I must at last renounce my optimism...[which is] the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.” Though his teacher assures him that Lisbon was created simply to be destroyed (just as feet were created to wear boots), he only finds further disillusionment on his journey. Having rescued his lady-love, he finds her looks faded and her conversation tiresome; they retire to a farm and curse the fate that brought them there. Yet before the final curtain, Candide meets a wise man who tells him the secret of life is simply to work. Candide adopts a new motto: “to cultivate our garden,” meaning to faithfully work the earth and leave philosophy to the gods.  

Voltaire used the story of Candide (whose name means candid, or earnest/innocent) to highlight the problem of growing up in a world full of sham and hypocrisy. Everyone he talks to has a different story, but they all add up to the same result: life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. So what is the point of growing up? Simply to watch your illusions crack under the boot of experience? While many people feel this way, the role of art is to provide an answer, since a book (for example) can live many lives. We might not find the answer in a single life, but by exploring many worlds with many pairs of eyes, we can glimpse something elusive that begins to make sense. Voltaire doesn’t provide easy answers in his book, though he does suggest that following dogmas only leads to martyrdom. A true life is one lived close to the ground, so you can see your own two feet and where they’ve come from.

One of the most remarkable coming-of-age novels in recent memory is Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park (2012). In this book, we have two unlikely protagonists: both outsiders, misfits, and worst of all, teenagers. They hide behind hair and comic books, disinterested in the world and expecting the worst from their peers. Park initially dismisses Eleanor as a ‘weird’ girl and tries to avoid her on the bus. Eleanor, likewise, lumps him together with every other cruel, churlish boy at her school. Slowly, however, they begin sharing comic books on the bus without sharing a word. Literature brings them together, offering them a common language that most teenagers lack. Rowell is less concerned with finding these characters a place or philosophy in society: instead, she is simply teaching them to speak, to see a person as a human being—and themselves as equally flawed, comic creations.

The first time Eleanor looks at herself this way, she remarks: “He was still holding the end of her scarf, rubbing the silk idly between his thumb and fingers. She watched his hand. If he were to look up at her now, he’d know exactly how stupid she was...If Park were to look up at her now, he’d know everything. He didn’t look up. He wound the scarf around his fingers until her hand was hanging in the space between then. Then he slid the silk and his fingers into his open palm. And Eleanor disintegrated...Like something had gone wrong beaming her into the Starship Enterprise....Maybe Park had paralyzed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her.  That would be awesome.”

The beauty of this passage is its vulnerability: Eleanor wants him to batter down her defenses, to see her exactly how she truly is—as stupid, crazy, insecure, in love. Coming-of-age in this story is not finding a job or a calling in life, but learning to trust someone worth trusting. The modern world teaches us the opposite: raise shields, watch for enemy fighters! So how do you learn to trust someone, especially when—as Candide reminds us—most people are crooks and frauds?

Park’s answer comes when he takes her hand: “Holding Eleanor’s hand was like holding a butterfly. Or a heartbeat. Like holding something complete, and completely alive.” He goes onto to recall his previous attempts to hold or kiss a girl, which were not only awkward, but lifeless. He feared he wasn’t attracted to “real girls,” or perhaps only to “perverted cartoon-sexual” girls found in comics. However, once he took her hand, he realized, “he just didn’t recognize all those other girls. The way a computer drive will spit out a disk if it doesn’t recognize the formatting. When he touched Eleanor’s hand, he recognized her. He knew.” 

To me, this is a mirror image of Candide’s comment “we must cultivate our garden.” Life isn’t about destroying but planting, about finding ourselves in someone else and getting our hands dirty in the soil. Society drowns us in ideals while shrouding us from each other. How do you see someone else without seeing the ‘advertisement’ of their clothing, their language, their own affectations? Eleanor and Park don’t go on dating websites or follow the script of teenage sitcoms and movies. Instead they learn each other’s language. There is nothing less cynical—and more real—than reading a book. You have to lower your defenses and be open to an unfettered experience. That they do it together is the most romantic scene in the book.

In Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, he writes that “If one does not reflect, one thinks oneself master of everything; but when one does reflect, one realizes that one is master of nothing.” This bit of Eastern-tinged philosophy should be the cornerstone of every coming-of-age novel. We don’t read books to learn where to go or not to go, but to understand the journey itself. A book is a signpost on this journey, pointing us forward—or perhaps more accurately, pointing us inward. That’s where Eleanor found Park and vice versa—by looking at themselves in books. Literature is the greatest garden on earth, and only by cultivating it, as readers and writers, can we hope to find roads worth traveling. Once we think we’ve found the answers, or exclaiming, “been there, done that,” we’ve already closed the book—and forfeited any chance of truly ‘growing up.’